Jun 05

“Love and Mercy”: Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s Struggles

In essence, we get to study Brian’s break with sanity and his eventual healing, but by keeping the focus tight on these two moments, the film becomes emotionally exhilarating. This is a dark story at times, and there is an undercurrent of sadness that is hard to shake off, but it is also a story about just how incredibly important love can be to the overall well-being of any person. Drew McWeeny, HitFix, regarding film Love and Mercy

Love and Mercy, called by Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune)”the best musical biopic in decades,” examines aspects of Beach Boy Brian Wilson‘s diagnosis with severe mental illness in the 1960’s. As IMDB adds, “In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.”

Structure of Love and Mercy

Andrew Barker, Variety:

Alternating back and forth in time, [director Bill] Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner eschew a long-winded biographical approach in favor of two temporally specific parallel narratives. In one, roughly covering the period from 1965-68, [Paul] Dano plays Wilson as he resigns from touring, masterminds one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest masterpieces, and finds his grip on reality slowly loosening. In the second, set in the 1980s, [John] Cusack shows us Wilson as a broken, confused man under the pharmacological and legal thrall of manipulative therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), finding unlikely love with a Cadillac dealer named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who will later become his second wife.

You can watch the trailer here:

Some Psychological Background

Although Wilson was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic by Landy, in later years he was diagnosed elsewhere with bipolar schizoaffective disorder.

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune:

In reductive psychological terms, Wilson endured a terrible, abusive father (Bill Camp), who became the boys’ manager. Wilson then swapped him out for Landy, a manipulator of a different stripe. ‘Love & Mercy’ puts the two father figures out there because the facts of Wilson’s life support it. The man who wrote the melody for the neediest pop classic ever, ‘God Only Knows,’ clearly knew pain and emotional desolation and knew how to seduce millions with the sound.

Dano’s Wilson

Henry Barnes, The Guardian: “The songs in his head are coalescing into ‘Pet Sounds’. The voices in his head are only starting to get in the way…Bored of writing about ‘sun and summer and summer and sun’, he stays in California, dabbling with LSD, coveting ‘ego-death’, preparing an album that will change pop music forever.”

Cusack’s Wilson

Andrew Barker, Variety: “…Cusack’s fortysomething Brian dodders around his beachfront mansion under the ever-watchful eye of Landy and his ‘bodyguards,’ who have ordered Wilson to cut all contact with his family and even micromanage his diet. Heavily medicated to treat what Landy had diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, Wilson’s speech has been rendered into a series of seeming non sequiturs, yet Melinda seems to immediately understand him, recognizing a gentle soul desperate for connection, who retains a certain childlike trust despite years of exploitation.”

Giamatti’s Therapist Landy

Eric Kohn, Indiewire: “A delusional character himself, the domineering Landy could provide the focus of an entire movie in his own right, but Pohlad smartly keeps the story focused on Wilson’s talent and the way it confuses those around him.”

Aug 08

“Ruby Sparks”: Writer’s Block Unhinged, Therapy Notwithstanding

A new indie film Ruby Sparks, starring young actors Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, has kind of an unusual premise. From Fox Searchlight Pictures:

Calvin (Dano) is a young novelist who achieved phenomenal success early in his career but is now struggling with his writing – as well as his romantic life. Finally, he makes a breakthrough and creates a character named Ruby who inspires him. When Calvin finds Ruby (Kazan), in the flesh, sitting on his couch about a week later, he is completely flabbergasted that his words have turned into a living, breathing person.

Also interesting? Some of the connections between the creative folks involved, including that it’s the same team that directed Little Miss Sunshine, in which Dano played a sullen, non-speaking teenager. Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times, elaborates:

The film is about as meta as meta gets. Real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan star as lovebirds Calvin (the writer) and Ruby (his dreamy dream girl). They are directed by another real-life couple, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, from a screenplay by Kazan, who had Dano in mind when she was writing. Love is definitely in the air, as well as under the microscope.

The Ruby Sparks trailer opens with Calvin consulting his shrink (Elliott Gould):

When I saw the preview in a theater, it wasn’t until the end that I felt intrigued—can this couple survive? If so, in what parallel universe?

Dana Stevens of Slate observes, “Both writing and love are a lot harder to do well than the ending of Ruby Sparks would have us believe. So is making a movie about them.”

One other enticing factor is that a therapist is involved. However, as it turns out, the shrink is unnecessary.

What about the film’s message? Roger Ebert: “If the film has a message, and I’m not sure it does, it may be: As long as you’re alive, you’re always in rewrite.”

Hmm. What do other critics think Ruby Sparks is about?

Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger: “…(I)ts about our unwillingness to accept someone as they are, our self-destructive fondness for falling in love with impossible ideals (and then trying to tinker, endlessly, with the people we do manage to end up with)…”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “A movie about the power of the imagination really becomes a movie about a certain element of surrender – about the release of power – that is practically a requirement for loving somebody.”

Apr 20

“Little Miss Sunshine”: The Pleasure of Their Dysfunction

In my opinion, perhaps the most loveable dysfunctional family ever on film is that of Little Miss Sunshine (2006).

Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette), a harried chain-smoking mom, invites her suicidal intellectual gay brother Frank (Steve Carell) to stay with her and her family. Her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a wannabe self-help guru—who’s unsuccessful himself. Son Dwayne (Paul Dano) currently isn’t speaking. Grandpop Edwin (Alan Arkin) is addicted to heroin and was ousted from his elder care facility.

And that leaves seven-year-old chubby and bubbly Olive (Abigail Breslin), who just wants to win a beauty pageant—and isn’t really cut out for such things.

One could argue that all of the family members in Little Miss Sunshine should be in therapy—separately, together, whatever—but of course they aren’t. Instead, they’re all taking a road trip—in support of Olive’s dream. Below, the trailer:

Selected Reviews

James Berardinelli, ReelViews: “It takes a deft hand to fashion a feel-good movie with plenty of laughs and an upbeat ending out of a story that includes drug addiction, a suicide attempt, a death, Nietzsche, and Proust.”

Dana Stevens, Slate: “Like its heroine Olive Hoover, it wears its heart on its sleeve and assumes the best about everyone.”

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal: “…a dysfunctional-family comedy with a crucial difference — the function progresses, hilariously, from dys to full and loving.”

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “This bittersweet comedy of dysfunction takes place at the terminus of the American dream, where families are one bad break away from bankruptcy.”

David Rooney, Variety: “A quietly antic dysfunctional family road trip comedy that shoots down the all-American culture of the winner and offers sweet redemption for losers — or at least the ordinary folks often branded as such.”